Scottish Blairism is back

As expected the Blairite, right-wing candidate Anas Sarwar was elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party when the results were announced on February 27. The outcome, allied to Starmer’s increasing grip on the UK Labour Party, marks the end of the Corbyn left’s challenge to the dominant capitalist wing of the Labour Party. Indeed Jeremy Corbyn himself is still excluded from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and is no longer a Labour MP. The millionaire tendency are definitively back in the driving seat.

That the Corbyn ‘revolution’ has ended with the same Blairites back in charge was only possible because of the political and organisational compromises made to the right by the Labour left during the four and a half years of Corbyn’s leadership. Rather than use the mass enthusiasm for Corbyn, reflected in the hundreds of thousands who joined Labour, to create a genuine workers’ party and drive out the pro-capitalist elements this opportunity was squandered. 

Anas Sarwar defeated fellow Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) Monica Lennon with more than 62% support among Scottish Labour members. He narrowly lost to Lennon in the affiliated section which includes the trade unions. Scottish Labour have not released any information on the numbers who took part in the election. 

However, earlier in February it was leaked that the total eligible Labour membership for the election had dropped to just over 16,000, including affiliated members. The turnout for this election was thought to be 42%, indicating that around 7,000 votes were cast. 

The collapse in Labour’s membership in Scotland is sharply illustrated by comparing it to the 2017 leadership contest. Then, Richard Leonard defeated Anas Sarwar when more than 21,000 members participated out of a membership of 35,300. 

In 2017, Sarwar had the support of 48% of Scottish Labour members and just 33% of the affiliated members section. This time, as well as polling more than 60% of the membership ballot, he won the votes of 49% of the affiliated members who took part. 

Nor was there any question about where Sarwar stood politically. He has always been a Blairite. So, for example, he supported the attempted coup against Corbyn in 2016 and backed Owen Smith when he challenged for the UK leadership.

And, as is well-known, Sarwar himself is literally a millionaire. He transferred his £4.8 million stake in the family cash and carry business to his children during the 2017 leadership contest. He was also heavily criticised in 2017 when it was exposed that his family firm did not pay the living wage or recognise trade unions.

It says much as to the character of the Scottish Labour Party that someone with such a pro-business track record could ascend to the leadership. Much has been made in the media that Sarwar is the first person from a Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) background to lead a UK-based political party. Yet under his and Starmer’s leadership, Labour will seek to rule for big business and will be no friend of low paid and exploited black and Asian workers.

One of Anas Sarwar’s first acts as Scottish Labour leader was to tell the nine Aberdeen Labour councillors suspended from the party for forming a coalition with the Tories that they are welcome back. He told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme that “they are not former Labour colleagues, I regard them as Labour colleagues, they are Labour councillors doing a good job. I regard them as Labour councillors and I think the situation is far from acceptable, but they have gone through a process that was before my time as leader”. He has said nothing similar about Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the PLP.

The response to Sarwar’s election from the leadership of the Scottish National Party (SNP) was instructive. Nicola Sturgeon lauded Sarwar by saying “he (and his dad before him) and I are long-time political opponents, but I also like and rate him”. Despite their differences on independence, the fact that Sarwar will offer no challenge to the SNP leadership from the left will be a comfort for the SNP leadership.  

There were little in the way of significant differences between Anas Sarwar and his opponent Monica Lennon apart from indyref2. While Lennon said Scottish Labour should accept that a majority of MSPs in the Scottish parliament in favour of a second independence referendum would be a mandate Labour could not oppose, Sarwar said he would rule out another referendum for the lifetime of the next Scottish parliament. Both candidates said they would campaign in opposition to Scottish independence.

Sarwar’s trenchant opposition to self-determination for Scotland and his pro-capitalist policies will mean there can be no recovery for Scottish Labour among the working class. Current polling would see Scottish Labour reduced to around 15 MSPs in the Scottish parliament elections in May. 

Moreover, Sarwar is the fifth Scottish Labour leader since the referendum of 2014 – the tenth if you include interim stand-ins. The Pasokification of a party in terminal decline shows no signs of reversal. (PASOK was the traditional party of the Greek working class but saw its base of support eradicated after years of pro-capitalist rule and attacking Greek workers) Labour could only hold onto a single MP in Scotland in the December 2019 Westminster general election out of a possible 56. 

The need to build a new workers’ party in Scotland is even more urgent following Sarwar’s victory. It is essential that the trade unions in Scotland – and this should begin with the left-led unions and leaders – plan for a conference this year to discuss the launching of a new workers’ party. 

The need to address the growing economic crisis, for a socialist recovery from Covid, and a principled position on the right to self-determination demands such a party. 

Socialist Party Scotland and the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (Scottish TUSC) are helping to lay the ground for this by standing widely in the Scottish elections in May.

Philip Stott